The Decade in Spaceflight: NASA Shuttles Retired as Private Spaceships Took Flight in the 2010s
As not only 2019 but the whole 2010s come to a close, it’s time to review some of the biggest space science stories of the decade.
From, the space shuttle’s retirement to the rise of space startups, the past 10 years have seen some incredible spaceflights. Here are the top stories of the decade.
2010: NASA’s asteroid plan, SpaceX & Virgin Galactic
While NASA’s space shuttle days were numbered in 2010, the U.S. space agency wasn’t giving up on human spaceflight vehicles of its own.
© Provided by Space The 2010s marked the decade NASA’s space shuttles stopped flying, retiring to museums after thirty years of service.
On April 15, 2010, President Barack Obama unveiled a new plan for NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid on a true deep-space voyage. The project, later known as NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, replaced the canceled Project Constellation aimed at a return to the moon by the mid-2020s set down by the previous administration of George W. Bush.
The only survivor of Project Constellation was NASA’s Orion spacecraft, though elements of its heavy-lift Ares V rocket found new life in the agency’s current Space Launch System.
With NASA to private companies to eventually take its place as a low-earth orbit taxi, SpaceX was one of several companies already working with the agency on the issue. Enter SpaceX’s Dragon.
On Dec. 8, 2010, a SpaceX Falcon 9 launched the first Dragon space capsule, an uncrewed spacecraft, on a short demonstration flight. The mission marked the first private spacecraft to launch into orbit and return safely to Earth.
On Oct. 10 of 2010, Virgin Galactic made its own bit of space history: the first solo flight of its SpaceShipTwo space plane.
The test flight was an unpowered glide flight for the VSS Enterprise, Virgin Galactic’s first SpaceShipTwo spacecraft for passenger suborbital flights. The spacecraft glided back to Earth after being dropped from midair from its carrier plane, the WhiteKnightTwo.
It took 15 minutes for SpaceShipTwo to return to Earth, setting the stage for future powered tests using the vehicle’s novel hybrid rocket motor.
Related Slideshow: Famous milestones in space (Provided by Photo Services)
June 20, 1944: First man-made object in space
The MW 18014, a V-2 guided ballistic missile, was launched from the Peenemünde Army Research Center in Nazi Germany. It reached an altitude of 109 miles (176 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface.
Oct. 4, 1957: First artificial satellite in space
Weighing 184 pounds (84 kilograms), Sputnik 1, a metal sphere with a diameter of 23 inches (58 centimeters), was launched by the Soviet Union into an elliptical low-Earth orbit, giving the Russians a first ‘win’ in the Space Race. The spacecraft completed an Earth orbit every 96.2 minutes and transmitted a series of beeps that could be monitored around the world.
(Pictured) Replica of Sputnik 1.
Nov. 3, 1957: First animal to orbit the Earth
Laika, a three-year-old stray dog from the streets of Moscow, Russia, was sent up to space in Sputnik 2. Scientists believed animals could help understand the effect of space flight on humans. However, since they hadn’t yet, at the time, figured out the technology to de-orbit, it was a one-way flight. Laika died soon after her flight, possibly from overheating caused by a malfunctioning spacecraft.
Aug. 14, 1959: First photo of Earth from space
American satellite Explorer 6 transmitted crude pictures of a sunlit area of the Central Pacific Ocean and its cloud cover while it was crossing Mexico.
Oct. 7, 1959: First photos of another space object
Although no human has ever stood on the far side of the moon, Soviet-era space probe Luna 3 was the first to take photographs of the area. The probe took 29 images; they were of low-resolution but many features could still be identified, such as the Mare Moscoviense (the dark spot in the upper right corner).
March 11, 1960: First solar probe is launched
NASA launched the Pioneer 5 space probe, via a Thor-Able 4 rocket, to investigate the interplanetary space between Earth and Venus. The probe was designed to provide information on solar flares, radiation and interplanetary magnetic fields.
April 12, 1961: First man in space
Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin completed an orbit of the Earth on the Vostok 1. This was Gagarin’s first and only spaceflight. The flight lasted 108 minutes and Gagarin parachuted out of the capsule when it was 4.3 miles (seven kilometers) from the planet’s surface. However, he didn’t man the mission – it was controlled either by an auto-pilot mechanism or from the ground.
May 5, 1961: First completed manned spaceflight
American astronaut Alan Shepard piloted the Mercury-Redstone 3 (also called Freedom 7) to demonstrate humans could withstand the high gravitational forces of launch and landing. He completed a 15-minute suborbital flight before landing in the North Atlantic, off the coast of the Bahamas.
June 16, 1963: First woman in space
Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova completed 48 orbits of the Earth in three days. She was awarded the title of “Hero of the Soviet Union” on return and the United Nations Gold Medal of Peace.
March 18, 1965: First spacewalk
Voskhod 2 pilot Alexey Leonov completed a 12-minute spacewalk when he left the craft to attach a camera to the end of the airlock. An endeavor to mark a space milestone, it could have cost Leonov his life since his suit was over-pressurized and he almost suffered a heatstroke. Fortunately, all ended well and the cosmonaut was recorded floating in space before safely re-entering the spacecraft.
July 15, 1965: First close-up photographs of another planet
NASA’s Mariner 4 became the first man-made object to successfully fly by Mars. It transmitted 21 images of the Martian surface, which showed deep craters (like those on the surface of the moon) and no signs of life.
Feb. 3, 1966: First soft landing on another celestial body
Russia’s Luna 9 accomplished a lunar landing by deploying a landing bag to survive the impact. The unmanned spacecraft landed undamaged near the Oceanus Procellarum and the on-board television camera system took photographs of the surface. This was the first time photos were transmitted to Earth from the surface of another celestial object.
Dec. 25, 1968: First manned mission escapes Earth’s orbit
Apollo 8 departed from Earth’s orbit at 6:10:17 UTC, going into lunar orbit and circling it 10 times. Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders marked a list of firsts that include: first humans to see the Earth as a whole, enter the gravitational force of another celestial object, to photograph Earth from space, see the far side of the moon and see an Earthrise.
July 20, 1969: First man on the moon
Apollo 11 Mission Commander Neil Armstrong made history when he set foot on the moon. Along with astronaut Buzz Aldrin (pictured), Armstrong landed the lunar module at 20:18 UTC and, six hours later, stepped outside. He was joined by Aldrin some 20 minutes later. Armstrong and Aldrin also became the first humans to take pictures on and off the moon.
Nov. 17, 1970: First lunar rover lands
Lunokhod 1 was the first of two unmanned rovers launched by the Soviet Union. Weighing 1,667 pounds (756 kilograms), it landed in the Mare Imbrium (also called Sea of Showers or Sea of Rains).
April 19, 1971: First space station
The Soviets launched the first space station of any kind, the Salyut 1 (R), to conduct tests and scientific research in low-Earth orbit. An accident on Soyuz 11 forced the Soviets to halt their space missions as their capsules had to be redesigned. This took too long and it was decided to terminate the Salyut 1 after 175 days.
(Pictured) Artist’s rendering of a Soyuz space craft docking with Salyut 1.
July 15, 1972: First mission to leave the inner Solar System
The Pioneer 10, launched on March 2, 1972, became the first spacecraft to enter the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It would become the first to fly by Jupiter in December 1973.
(Pictured) Artist’s rendering of Pioneer 10 moving away from the sun.
July 15, 1975: First international manned mission launches
The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project’s aim was the first joint U.S.-Soviet spaceflight. With a mission to develop space rescue capability, the American unnumbered Apollo module and Soviet Soyuz 19 docked with each other in space on July 17, 1975, marking the first such link-up of spacecraft from the two nations. The mission also marked the end of the Space Race.
Oct. 22, 1975: First photos from the surface of another planet
The Venera 9 unmanned Soviet mission, that launched in June 8, 1975, became the first spacecraft to orbit Venus. The craft landed near the Beta Regio area on the planet and took images of the Venusian surface that were transmitted to the Earth.
April 12, 1981: First reusable shuttle launches
NASA’s maiden orbiter, Space Shuttle Columbia, was launched with two crew members – John W. Young and Robert L. Crippen. The mission was called STS-1 and Columbia orbited the Earth 37 times before landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California, U.S., on April 14, 1981, becoming the first reusable, manned spacecraft.
Feb. 7, 1984: First untethered spacewalk
July 25, 1984: First woman to walk in space
Cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya conducted an extravehicular activity (EVA) for over three hours, cutting and welding metal outside the Salyut 7 space station. She is, to date, the only Soviet woman to walk in space.
Jan. 28, 1986: Challenger explosion
Space Shuttle Challenger started breaking up 73 seconds after lift-off. It exploded shortly after, killing all seven crew members on-board, including school teacher Christa McAuliffe; she was a civilian selected from thousands of applications for the NASA Teacher in Space Project.
(Pictured, clockwise from L) Ellison Onizuka, McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Francis “Dick” Scobee and Michael J. Smith
Feb. 19, 1986: First long-term space station
Mir’s Base Block was launched into orbit by a Soviet Proton launcher, becoming the world’s first modular space station – assembled over the 10 years it was orbiting Earth. During its 15 years of service, it remained the largest artificial satellite in orbit.
Feb. 14, 1990: First photograph of the whole solar system
The Voyager 1, launched in 1977, took the first ever “family portrait” of the solar system. It was a mosaic of 60 images that only showed six planets since Mercury was too close to the sun to be seen, Mars could not be detected by the camera and Pluto was too small. The sun was seen in the center as just a point of light.
March 22, 1995: Longest human space flight
Cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov lived aboard Mir Space Station for just over 437 days continuously. His combined space time, over multiple missions, is more than 22 months. His residency was helpful for scientists to study biomedical effects of long-term spaceflight.
July 4, 1997: First operational rover on another planet
Mars Pathfinder took four minutes to enter the Martian atmosphere and land in the Ares Vallis region. It deployed the Sojourner Rover soon after, which conducted experiments to analyze the atmosphere, climate and geology of the planet.
Nov. 20, 1998: Largest man-made object in space
The first module of the International Space Station (ISS) was launched by a Russian Proton rocket. The world’s first multinational space station would continue to grow over subsequent missions until it became the largest man-made object in Earth’s orbit and the largest satellite of Earth. The station has also been continuously occupied for more than 16 years, making it the longest continuous human presence in space.
March 6, 2009: First space telescope
A Delta II rocket carried Kepler, NASA’s first planet-hunting spacecraft, on its mission to look for Earth-like exoplanets. It would orbit the Sun every 372 days, observing an area and selecting stars for further study.
(Pictured) Artist’s rendering of Kepler spacecraft.
April 28, 2001: First space tourist
American millionaire and engineer Dennis Tito flew to the ISS on the Soyuz TM-32. He is believed to have paid $20 million and returned safely after an eight-day trip.
Feb. 12, 2001: First landing on an asteroid
The NEAR-Shoemaker space probe’s mission to Asteroid 433 Eros started in 1996 and ended with the probe landing on its surface. It collected data on the asteroid’s composition and magnetic field, with the last data signal being received by NASA on Feb. 28, 2001.
(Pictured) Visualization of 433 Eros.
May 22, 2012: First private company in space
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 delivered the unmanned Dragon cargo spacecraft into orbit so that it could rendezvous with the International Space Station. The Dragon was also the first American vehicle to visit the International Space Station since the end of the space shuttle program.
(Pictured) The Dragon craft is grappled by ISS’ robotic arm.
Nov. 12, 2014: First comet landing
The European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe reached the orbit of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on Aug. 6, 2014, and its lander module Philae successfully landed on the comet’s surface.
July 14, 2015: Last encounter with one of nine original planets
New Horizons space probe, launched in 2006, performed its closest flyby of Pluto, becoming the first interplanetary space probe to reach and observe the dwarf planet.
Aug. 10, 2015: Fresh food is harvested in space
After decades of eating Earth-packed food, NASA astronauts aboard the ISS managed to grow, harvest and eat red romaine lettuce in space. They cleaned the greens with citric acid-based wipes before eating them.
March 2, 2016: First ISS year-long mission ends
Russian astronaut Mikhail Kornienko (R) and American Scott Kelly recorded the longest time in space for ISS crew members after their 340-day mission. They were part of a program to study the health effects of long-term spaceflight.
Feb. 15, 2017: 104 satellites launched at once
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) blasted off 101 smaller nano satellites and three Indian satellites in one go. The combined payload of 3,040 lbs (1,380 kgs) was aboard the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).
March 30, 2017: First reusable orbital rocket launched and landed
SpaceX sent a previously used Falcon 9 into space, carrying communication satellites. The first stage of the rocket had been used in an April 2016 NASA mission. It successfully returned to Earth and landed on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
Feb. 6, 2018: SpaceX tests the most powerful launch vehicle in operation
The private space company successfully completed the flight of the Falcon Heavy that can lift up to 141,000 pounds (64 metric tons) – a mass greater than a 737 fully-loaded jetliner. During its demo flight, the huge rocket launched Elon Musk’s cherry-red Tesla Roadster and its dummy astronaut, “Starman” (pictured), into orbit around the sun.
Oct. 29, 2018: Closest man-made object to the Sun
The Parker Solar Probe became the closest ever man-made object to the sun. The record of 26.55 million miles (42.73 million kilometers) was previously held by the Helios 2 spacecraft, which was launched jointly by NASA and Germany’s DFVLR. The Parker probe is expected to approach within 4.3 million miles (6.9 million kilometers) from the center of the sun and the mission goals include understanding the flow of energy around the corona (outer layer of the sun’s atmosphere).
(Pictured) United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket launching Parker Solar Probe at Cape Canaveral in Florida, U.S. on Aug. 12, 2018.
Jan. 1, 2019: NASA explores furthest point in space
NASA spacecraft New Horizons traveled to Ultima Thule, a trans-Neptunian object located four billion miles (6.5 billion kilometers) from Earth. The journey, which was made in six hours and eight minutes, marks the furthest point in space humanity has explored to date. Photographs sent back from the flyby – the space craft was 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) away – show two sphere-like objects fused together. The largest is believed to be 21 miles (33 kilometers) long.
(Pictured) This image made available by NASA on Jan. 2, 2019, shows the size and shape of the object Ultima Thule.
Jan. 3, 2019: China lands probe on far side of the moon
On this day, the Chinese government claimed to have successfully landed a space probe on the far side of the moon. The probe – Chang’e-4 – landed in the South Pole-Aitken Basin, according to a statement issued by country’s space agency. The event now means China is one of only three countries in the world to have made soft-landings on the moon – the other two are the U.S. and the former Soviet Union.
On Jan. 15, 2019, China National Space Administration revealed that seeds taken up to the moon by Chang’e-4 have sprouted, marking the first time any biological matter has grown there. “Learning about these plants’ growth in a low-gravity environment would allow us to lay the foundation for our future establishment of space base,” said Professor Xie Gengxin, the experiment’s chief designer.
(Pictured) This photo, provided on Jan. 3, 2019, by China National Space Administration, shows the Chang’e-4 probe during its landing process.
April 10, 2019: First ever black hole image captured
The black hole was found in the distant galaxy M87, which is located in the Virgo galaxy cluster. Captured by the Event Horizon telescope, the image marks a first in space imaging technology. The Event Horizon telescope was built specifically to capture images of black holes, via a network of eight linked telescopes around the world.
Oct. 18, 2019: NASA astronauts conduct first all-female spacewalk
NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir made history as they completed the first-ever spacewalk by an all-woman team. The spacewalk was guided by veteran NASA astronaut and capsule communicator Stephanie Wilson on ground and astronauts Luca Parmitano and Andrew Morgan on the International Space Station. It lasted for seven hours and 17 minutes, and the team’s job was to fix a broken part of the station’s solar power network.
(Pictured) Koch and Meir with Morgan at the International Space Station on Oct. 18, 2019.
Feb. 6, 2020: Longest-ever female spaceflight
NASA astronaut Christina Koch spent 328 days orbiting Earth on the International Space Station, returning on the Russian Soyuz craft that landed in Kazakhstan on Feb. 6. Her time spent on one continuous space journey exceeds the previously held record of 289 days set by fellow American Peggy Whitson in December 2019, and is shy of the all-time U.S. record of 340 days held by Scott Kelly.
(Pictured) Koch reacts after the landing of the Russian Soyuz MS-13 space capsule in a remote area southeast of Zhezkazgan in the Karaganda region of Kazakhstan on Feb. 6, 2020.
2011: A space shuttle farewell
After 30 years of service, NASA retired its space shutle fleet in 2011 with the final flight of the Atlantis orbiter.
Atlantis landed back on Earth after its final mission on July 21, 2011. This was the 135th flight of NASA’s shuttle program and marked its end. While the craft did have many successes, including helping build the International Space Station, it did also see its fair share of tragedy. A total of 14 astronauts were killed on two shuttle missions, the Challenger accident of 1986 and the Columbia disaster of 2003.
With the retiring of the space shuttle, NASA became dependent on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to fly American astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
After 13 years of tedious construction, the International Space Station was completed after receiving its final major component in March 2011. While additional pieces can still be added to the station, this final component marked the completion of the initial framework. The station weighs in a 431-tons, is the size of a football field and has as much living space as a five-bedroom house.
The station hosts astronauts from around the world and allow them to work together to conduct a number of experiments in a weightless environment. The structure, coming in at $100 billion, is the most expensive structure ever built.
2012: A Dragon at ISS
During the summer of 2012, SpaceX performed the first flight of its Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station. This capsule was the first commercial spacecraft ever docked with the station and the second successful launch of the Dragon capsule by the company. These test missions were performed as part of a billion-dollar contract SpaceX has with NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.
On June 16, 2012, China launched one of its most ambitious missions to date: the country’s first attempt at docking a crewed spaceflight. The spacecraft, Shenzhou 9, met up with the uncrewed Tiangong 1 space lab. From there the three astronauts aboard the spacecraft will spend 13-days on Tiangong 1 during which they will perform two docking exercises and a few science experiments.
This launch is also monumental because among its crew is China’s first female astronaut, Liu Yang. Another astronaut aboard the spacecraft, Jing Haipeng, was the first astronaut to launch into space twice. The final crewmember, Liu Wang, was a senior colonel in the People’s Liberation Army and made his first spaceflight.
On Dec. 12, 2013, North Korea successfully placed a satellite in orbit after many previously failed attempts.
The launch was made by the country’s Unha-3 rocket and was quick to draw disapproval from countries like the U.S. and South Korea who called it a thinly veiled missile threat.
However, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, a joint effort between the U.S. and Canada, said that the satellite or any potential debris did not pose a risk to North America.
2013: India, NASA launch to Mars
The Dulles-based space company, Orbital Sciences Corp., had a successful debut of its Cygnus spacecraft and Antares rocket in September 2013.
Once launched the Cygnus spacecraft was able to successful be captured by robotic arm at the International Space Station, and later be released and intentionally deorbited. The company (now Northrop Grumman Innovation System) launched the flight as part of a $1.9 billion contract to bring cargo to the space station.
In November 2013, India launched its Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) to the Red Planet. The $73.5 million mission coincided with a NASA mission, MAVEN, which also launched toward Mars in the same month.
MAVEN is designed to study Mars’ atmosphere while MOM will instead focus on potential indicators of life, like methane.
In December 2013, China joined Russia and the United States as the third country to complete a successful soft landing on the lunar surface. It was China’s third moon mission, but the county’s first attempt at landing on the surface. The spacecraft, Chang’e-3, also marked the first extraterrestrial landing for the China National Space Administration. And Chang’e-3 wasn’t alone, it brought along with it a lunar rover, Yutu (or, Jade rabbit.)
Since Chang’e-3’s successful landing of the surface China has since landed Chang’e-4 on the dark side of the moon and is expected to land Chang’e-5 on the surface in 2020.
2014: India at Mars, Space Accidents
On Sept. 24, 2014 India became the fourth nation to have a spacecraft orbit Mars. The craft in question, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) probe, is joining the ranks of United States, the European Space Agency and the former Soviet Union, all of whom have crafts orbiting the Red Planet.
The $73 million project was largely a demonstration of technological might and proof that India’s spacecraft could reach Mars, but it’s also equipped with a few scientific instruments as well. In particular MOM is designed to study methane on Mars, a gas that is a key indicator of potential life on the planet and that has become more and more mysterious toward the end of the decade.
NASA experienced the first failure of its commercial cargo program when an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded just after liftoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, destroying its robotic Cygnus cargo ship.
The rocket had a failure in one of its Russian-made engines. As it was an uncrewed cargo mission, no one was hurt, but Orbital Sciences (now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems) had to redesign the Antares rocket with different engines before returning to flight in 2016.
Also in 2014, Virgin Galactic experienced a tragic failure when its first SpaceShipTwo space plane, the VSS Enterprise, suffered a deadly accident on Oct. 31, 2014. While in the air the plane broke-up with two pilots, Michael Alsbury and Peter Siebold onboard. Alsbury was killed during the incident and Siebold was injured but survived.
An FAA investigation later found that Alsbury unlocked SpaceShipTwo’s unique feather system, used during reentry, too early in the flight, leading to training and design changes to prevent the accident in the future. Virgin Galactic resumed SpaceShipTwo test flights in 2016 with a new SpaceShipTwo, the VSS Unity.
Also in 2014 NASA debuted its first spacecraft designed to take astronauts to Mars and asteroids: Orion.
NASA’s launched an uncrewed test Orion on Dec. 5 atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket. It made two orbits around Earth and reached an altitude of 3,600 miles (5,793 kilometers.) During this test flight, which took 4.5 hours, the team was able to test key systems on board the craft.
2015: A Venus arrival, private spaceflight rises
After a long,5-year wait, the Japanese spacecraft Akatsuki finally made it to Venus!
The spacecraft had originally tried to reach the planet in 2010 but was sent off to orbit the sun instead after the death of one of its engines. After that setback, the spacecraft bided its time until another window of opportunity would present itself to make a move. And such a day came, exactly five years later.
Now in orbit with Venus, Akatsuki plans to study the planet’s clouds, atmosphere and weather in order to learn more about how it came to be such a hostile environment. This mission represents the second attempt — and first successful — interplanetary mission from Japan. Before Akatsuki, a previous mission to Mars had failed and a successful mission to the moon had ended.
SpaceX experienced big losses and big wins in 2015.
In June 2015 the company launched the seventh cargo mission to the International Space Station for NASA, only to have its Falcon 9 rocket explode 3 minutes after liftoff — destroying the rocket and the cargo. SpaceX attributed the failure to faulty steel struts and immediately began re-evaluating and redesigning aspects of the rocket.
After the redesigns the rocket came back strong in December of 2015. The rocket not only made a successful delivery of 11 satellites for Orbcomm, but was also able to successfully land part of the Falcon 9 first stage. This, as well as a similar mission from Blue Origin, were the first to demonstrate how multi-use rockets could dramatically save flight costs.
2016: Big tests for human spaceflight
The year 2016 marked the end of a joint NASA and Roscosmos’ year-long mission in space. NASA astronaut (and twin,) Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko both spent 11-months aboard the International Space Stationto learn more about how long-term space travel might affect the human body. Kelly and Kornienko returned safely to Earth in March 2016.
In addition to looking at his own endurance during the year-long space mission, NASA was also able to look at Scott Kelly’s identical twin Mark Kelly, also a former astronaut, to compare how long-term space travel might affect genes and DNA between the two brothers. Since the mission ended researchers have observed small changes that took place between the brothers, including a change in Scott’s gut biome, a lengthening of his telemeres, and change in some of his gene expressions.
At the end of 2016, China launched the country’s second space station prototype. The space lab, called Tiangong-2, launched on Sept. 15 and followed China’s Tiangong 1 module, which launched in 2011.
Tiangong-2 and was visited in October by two Chinese astronauts, Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong, in the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft. Once docked with Tiangong-2, the two taikonauts spent a month aboard the science lab.
Related: Tiangong-2 in Pictures: China’s Second Space Lab
During their time onboard, Jing and Chen conducted experiments with silkworms as well as lettuce seeds. The pair returned safely to Earth in November, doubling the longest previous stint aboard the new station. In 2019, Tiangong 2 fell from space to end its mission. Unlike its predecessor Tiangong 1, which fell uncontrolled from space, Tiangong 2 was intentionally deorbited over the Pacific Ocean under the control of Chinese flight controllers.
In 2016, Virgin Galactic made its first debut since the fatal crash of its VSS Enterprise spacecraft in 2014.
The space company’s new SpaceShipTwo, called VSS Unity, was lifted off by its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, and successfully glided back to Earth. This and a number of other glide flights are meant to prepare the VSS Unity for eventual commercial suborbital flights. Tickets for these flights are estimated to cost $250,000.
2017: Space Records and the moon
On Feb, 14, 2017 India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) sent 104 satellites into space, the largest number of satellites ever sent by a single rocket. The previous record, 37 satellites, had been held by Russia’s Dnepr booster.
The satellites aboard the PSLV were mostly small cubesats from a San Francisco based company, but other satellites aboard the rocket also came from the Netherlands, Israel, Kazakhstan and Switzerland.
After an already star-studded career as an astronaut, in 2017 Peggy Whitson added another achievement to the books: longest cumulative time spent in space by a U.S. astronaut. Over a handful of different missions Whitson has spent a total of 665 days in space. The previous U.S. record, 534 days, had been set just a year prior by Jeff Williams.
In Photos: Record-Breaking NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson
However, Whitson still doesn’t hold the worldwide record for time in space. That is held by a Russian cosmonaut after spending 879 days in space over the course of five missions, some aboard the International Space Station and some aboard the Soviet-Russian station Mir.
On Dec. 11, 2017 President Donald Trump signed the “Space Policy Directive 1” which dictates that NASA’s next crewed missions will be heading back to the moon, instead of to a near-by asteroid as President Barack Obama’s administration had decided. Either way, these new moon missions are still meant to act as a stepping stone toward eventual crewed Mars missions.
Related: Presidential Visions for Space Exploration: From Ike to Trump
The mandate has resulted in the Artemis mission program, which plans on landing a crewed mission on the moon by 2024. NASA says these missions will allow astronauts to test important technology and methodology before making the leap to Mars.
2018: Close calls, big successes
On Feb. 6, 2018, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket became launched its first test flight into space. The 23-story rocket has the world’s most powerful rocket in use (and second most powerful in history behind NASA’s Saturn V), and the heaviest payload capacity at 141,000 lbs (64,000 kilograms). Though the payload this time, a Tesla roadster equipped with a dummy passenger named “Starman,” was certainly a little lighter.
The success of the Falcon Heavy paves the way toward a future of reusable rockets as well. Including the launch on Feb. 6, the Falcon rocket family has successfully launched and dozens of times. Musk hopes that this kind of technology can help pave the way toward space tourism as well.
Oct. 11, 2018 was a close call for NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin as their scheduled Soyuz flight to the International Space Staton was abruptly aborted due to a booster failure. The rocket had already launched and the two men began a ballistic descent back to Earth in their Soyuz spacecraft, which performed a harrowing emergency abort escape. They experienced up to 6.7 Gs on their way down.
Luckily, both men were unharmed and were quickly recovered at their landing site. The anomaly did however disrupt the station’s crew schedule and for a short period of time lowered the typical 6-crewed rotation to only three.
Virgin Galactic officially reached space on December 2018! Technically. During the Dec. 11 launch, two pilots aboard Virgin’s VSS Unity were able to pass the United States Air Force’s space demarcation line at 51.4 miles (82.7 km.) However that is still shy of the more popular Karman line, whose boundary lies at 62 miles, or 100 kilometers.
Nevertheless, the consumer spaceflight company has been attempting to achieve this milestone for more than a decade and has continued doggedly at the goal, even after experiencing a fatal crash in 2014. In the future the company hopes to use this craft for commercial, suborbital space flights.
2018 was also a big year for a smaller kind of spacecraft called a cubesat. These mini, science satellites are small payloads that can be used for data recovery.
In 2018, the California-based space company Rocket Lab successfully launched 13 cubesats into space for NASA with missions ranging from radiation testing to testing 3D-printed rocket arms.
2019: China & the Moon’s Far Side
China made history in 2019 by becoming the first country ever to soft-land a spacecraft and rover on the far side of the moon.
The Chinese Chang’e 4 lander and its Yutu rover landed Jan. 3 at Von Kármán crater, where both spacecraft continue to operate today. The mission also carried the first plant to the moon and found a weird substance on the surface.
NASA also hit a major milestone of human spaceflight in 2019 with the first-ever all woman spacewalk.
On Oct. 18, astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir ventured outside together on the first spacewalk by an all-woman team. The two spacewalkers replaced a faulty battery component during the spacewalk and took a congratulatory call from President Donald Trump at the end.
For Koch, the spacewalk was just one milestone in a record-setting mission. She is currently on NASA’s longest single spaceflight by a woman, and will spend nearly a year in space by the time she returns in 2020.
SpaceX and Boeing both crept closer to crewed flights with their respective Crew Dragon and Starliner spacecraft in 2019.
In March, SpaceX launched the first uncrewed test flight of a Crew Dragon spacecraft, with Boeing achieving a similar milestone in mid-December. Boeing’s test flight was marred by a mission clock error, preventing the Starliner from docking at the space station. Instead, it landed two days after launch.
SpaceX also hit a hurdle in April, when its Crew Dragon capsule exploded during abort system ground tests. The company has pinpointed the source of the malfunction, and aims to launch an In-Flight Abort test in early January.